NIL Impacting Student Athletes’ Decisions to Return or Go Pro

Last Updated on January 9, 2024

When the NCAA approved its new name, image, and likeness policies in Summer 2021, there were myriads of predictions as to how it would impact the future of college athletics. Some reporters and fans in the world of college athletics went as far to speculate that the adoption of NIL by the NCAA would lead to some athletes choosing to return to school for at least one additional year, rather than going pro in their sport. Whether it is seen as a positive or negative, this prediction seems to have come true.

There is a laundry list of the impacts that NIL has had on college athletics, but the influence it has on student-athletes choosing to return to school is at the top of the list. Multiple student-athletes across various sports have cited NIL as a reason for returning to school or attending a school instead of beginning their professional careers.

For gymnasts, like Suni Lee and Jordan Chiles who competed in the Olympics while still in high school, NIL has led to major changes to college gymnastics. Prior to NIL, the top gymnasts in the country had to decide whether they would “accept money at the peak of their careers and forego competing in college or maintain their amateur (unpaid) status and sign with an NCAA team.”

However, with the new NIL policies, elite gymnasts can compete collegiately and earn a college degree, while still competing and profiting in elite gymnastics, giving power back to student-athletes.

College gymnasts aren’t the only student-athletes benefitting from NIL. College football has seen a trend of players returning to school instead of declaring early for the NFL draft since NIL was approved. For the 2023 NFL Draft, 82 players declared for the draft early (before their senior year). This was an 18% decline from the 100 early entrants in 2022. It is also 40% less than the 135 who entered early in 2019.

Some student-athletes return for more than four years because of both injuries and NIL. Utah’s tight end Brant Kuithe, who is out for the 2023 season with a knee injury, is considering a seventh collegiate season next year. Kuithe’s decision will factor his risk for another injury as well as NIL.

“Obviously NIL does help because if I want to come back for another year and I turn 25 next year in December, so I’ll be 25 by the end of the season if I do come back. Kind of taking another year and maybe risking something just in general, NIL, but it just kind of has to be for the right number,” Kuithe said.

In college basketball, student-athletes have been able to refine their skills at school while cashing in on their marketability. On the men’s side, it has allowed student-athletes who are talented and need money to stay in school rather than forgoing their eligibility after one season and potentially not getting drafted. In the past, those players were left without a college degree and forced to pursue a career overseas or in the G League.

Gonzaga’s Drew Timme chose to return for an extra year because he figured that “his NIL earnings were already comparable to his most likely NBA offer: a two-way deal ranging from $250,000-$500,000.” This decision also allowed Timme to explore alternative career paths aside from basketball.

NIL also played a role in Armando Bacot’s decision to return to UNC:

“I know it’s cutthroat when you get to the next level,” Bacot said. “If I can get another year to improve, why not? We’re making a lot of money now in college too. Five years ago, I would probably have had to leave after the Final Four. But I’m at a place I love, and have a chance to get my MBA from one of the best business schools. Why not? I love college.”

Two other men’s basketball players who returned to school last year because of big NIL deals were Colin Castleton and Oscar Tshiebwe, with Tshiebwe reportedly earning $2 million through NIL deals.

Although there are still issues with NIL in its current state, giving student-athletes the ability to earn money while pursuing a degree rather than pursuing a professional career while forgoing their eligibility is massively beneficial. It has also led to many student-athletes extending their college careers or choosing to attend college because they may be able to profit while creating a brand for themselves. NIL has certainly played a role in many athletes’ decisions to return to school and should be seen as massively beneficial.

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